Cécile Bonnefond is a marketing and management expert who has served as head of some of the world’s most-prestigious wine and food companies (Veuve Cliquot, parts of Danone, Grand Metropolitan Food France), so she realizes the value of a good story as a branding tool.
Now president of Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck Champagnes, she likes the life tale of founder Charles-Camille Heidsieck. While other Champagne houses were courting the courts of the Russian czars in St. Petersburg, a leading bubbly market of the day, Heidsieck decided to go west instead, crossing to America in the years before the Civil War.
He introduced much of Eastern wine-drinking society to Champagne and even became known as “Champagne Charlie.” A popular song was written about him. Then Charlie hit a tough streak. While trying to collect debts in Boston and New Orleans, he found himself caught up in the war and spent time in a military prison before being pardoned by President Lincoln.
It’s a good story, and one that will help customers remember the brand, but it happens to have nothing to do with Champagne today.
Today’s story is that the house of Piper and Charles was a bit afloat until it was purchased by luxury magnate Christian Descours on July 8, 2011, or “54 weeks ago,” as Bonnefond puts it as we are having lunch near Gramercy Park in Manhattan. Descours brought Bonnefond in as president, and Thierry Roset was elevated to chef de caves.
No wine brand is unique – there are always lap-overs in taste profiles and winemaking techniques – but what best characterizes Charles Heidsieck is its huge stock of reserves, which means that its Champagnes have an average age of 10 years of aging with the reserves being five to 15 years old.
Translated to the glass, that means that the new Charles Heidsieck expressions of brut and rosé reserves are very full and rich. Think of them as beautiful actresses on the red carpet as contrasted to the skinnier fashion models on the runway. The three words that Bonnefond uses to describe them are “complexity, unctuousness, and depth,” and I think that pretty well captures things.
The current prestige cuvée is the legendary 1995 Blanc des Millénaires. My notes include “toastiness from the age and not wood, marked with great intensity and depth.” Bonnefond says, “More tension, salinity and minerality - the voluptuousness comes from the Chardonnay from Oger” where they have major grower contracts.
A quick note about the other half, or rather 9/10, of the business, as Piper Heisieck is much bigger. “Piper has more vitality, fruit and structure,” Bonnefond says, “while Charles is complex, has depth, generosity and the capacity to age.”
But don’t look for a Piper story. Charlie founded it, too.